A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche

Why We Decided to Unschool

The decision to home school or to unschool may be as unique as the families that do it. We actually made the decision to unschool a number of months before we committed to coming to Costa Rica for our new adventure. This is how we came to our decision.

Before jumping in, there is a big difference between home schooling and unschooling, or “hack schooling,” even though they share some similarities. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind has a good description of home schooling that begins with:

Home schooling occurs when parents take charge of their children’s education — organizing subjects, teaching lessons or arranging for tutors, evaluating progress, and supervising social contacts.

Unschooling goes a bit further. There are several good descriptions of unschooling: Earl Stevens, John Holt, even Wikipedia. John Holt is one of the early pioneers of unschooling and we like his definition, which can be summarized crisply as:

This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.

While one key difference between home schooling and unschooling is no fixed curriculum, the bigger difference for Debbie and I is that in unschooling, the students direct their own learning based on their individual interests. As Holt notes, unschooling is “…the natural way to learn.” It is “…the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

Debbie and I are both human-centered designers. Human-centered design is basically a design process that emphasizes creation of artifacts based on the understanding the goals and needs of people (as opposed to making the user have to adapt to the product). For us, unschooling is the educational equivalent. We tailor learning to the interests of the learners.

We had three big reasons for why we favor the unschooling approach, but like many things, there was an initial “trigger.”

By the end of year 2 of middle school, Vie absolutely hated school. While it was the largest middle school in Seattle, it had many of the same challenges as other public, and many private, schools: large class sizes, emphasis on memorization and testing, little individual creativity, lots of effort spent on managing the class, and little actual time spent on learning.

I remember going to a science fair and seeing a number of signs in the classrooms about what the kids could not do, right next to equally large signs about what the consequences were if someone did them. I asked if they actually spent much time learning and Vie said “no”. Add to that all the mental bullying among pre-teens and Vie was ready to try unschooling.

In contrast, Aidan had a fabulous experience at University Cooperative School. We loved the place, the teachers, and the parents – and continue to be inspired by them – but he had graduated from 5th grade and was destined for a similar middle school experience.

We had planned to start unschooling this year in Seattle. As we first planned and then started making Costa Rica a reality, we saw our adventure as yet another way to enhance unschooling.

With that, here are the 3 big reasons why we decided to pursue this path of unschooling. Like most things, this is a change we are trying. We hope and expect it will bear great fruit. We don’t expect to get everything right but we all expect to work together to fix things when they aren’t working.

The Challenge – A Failing System Under Pressure

Our schools are under incredible pressure these days and are less and less capable of achieving the goals we all put on them. There are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the incredible documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here. Add to this consistent budget cuts to education and the consequent growing class size, reduction in class diversity (especially the arts), and other downstream challenges. John Taylor Gatto talks about a lot of this in his “underground classic” Dumbing us Down and his other books.

Probably the most telling challenge to me is that so many bright and creative teachers – the ones who can bring change, the ones who are willing to take risks and try new things – are getting burned out or pushed out of the system.

That saddens me especially since, at least generally in our system, every student has to experience the same thing. An incredibly gifted teacher, and we’ve seen many, can make almost any subject interesting. But that places all of the weight on one part of the system and those teachers are getting to be few and far between.

The Opportunity – Learning to Love Learning

Lifelong learning is an important value for both Deb and I. We embrace it completely and continue to learn every day. We want to help our young adults embrace this value as well. That’s one reason why we left our high-tech jobs for a year – so that our young adults have an opportunity to experience another culture. However, to get our young adults to embrace lifelong learning, they have to love learning, which is difficult if they “hate school.”

We wanted to get Aidan and Vie back to the point where they loved learning as young kids. Letting them experience learning more naturally by what drives their interests harnesses their natural passion and curiosity. Basic skills like reading, writing and math can be learned in the context of something they care about in ways that help them understand why it is important to learn those skills.

A good example is what Vie and Aidan when they did their “paper quest.” Aidan generally didn’t like writing, even at UCoop. Vie was uninspired at best, except perhaps for creative writing. Both did have a good foundation of how to write a paper though. They just had assignments that didn’t engage their interests. It used to be like pulling teeth to get Aidan to write more than a few sentences, even though he loves speaking and has an incredible vocabulary.

Aidan and Vie’s “paper quest” was a “quest” to write a paper comparing two of their favorite video games. They were both excited to write about it. Their final paper was a 28 page multimedia paper. That’s more than I’ve seen either of them write before – or anyone in their schools for that matter. The incredible part is that we didn’t say anything about length; we just let them go. They wanted to write this much. This example just reinforces for me the benefit of harnessing their natural, and different, interests and using them to cover the more basic things.

An unschooling approach is really tailored to each of them naturally. We aren’t designing curricula around their interests. They are. We simply help them bring some structure, take responsibility, find resources, act as sounding boards, and yes, help motivate them – especially now in our early days of doing this. Logistically, this doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all approach in schools; that’s not how they are structured. And unlike home schooling, it doesn’t rely on Deb, me, or anyone for that matter to find or create a curriculum to teach them. They learn naturally because they want to. Or at least, that is what we are hoping.

Almost by definition, an unschooling approach focuses on building confidence, interest and passion – more than mastery. It’s the fuel for mastery. There is a place for mastery, but I believe mastery is actually not possible without the former, otherwise it ends up being short term memorization to pass a test. I even saw this at Stanford, a school I love dearly. As a premed (who decided not to pursue medicine), I saw many people studying for science tests, writing memorized formulas and facts down on those tests to get “partial credit,” rather than actually trying to solve the problem. That approach may work well in the short term for tests, and perhaps for some schools, but not for creating mastery.

Creativity, along with mastery, allow people to do or solve things that they have never seen before. To get there, people need to be good at learning new things, applying knowledge in new ways, and fearlessly trying new things that might not work out. In other words, they need to know how to learn more than what to learn. With the latter, you can do what you know, if you manage to remember it. With the former, you can do anything. We need more of that in our world, especially now. And it won’t be on any test you can study for.

Learning is changing

There’s one more reason for why we are unschooling. It wasn’t on our radar as much before we started this journey. We are seeing learning itself changing, not through some plan, but rather organically, shaped by the economy, generational differences, technology, the internet, and Universities themselves.

According to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Much of it is available online now. If we want to learn about something, or try doing something, it’s likely that there is a YouTube video on it. [As a fun aside, Aidan wanted to make Deb and I Margaritas the other day. He looked up a video on YouTube, made the drink, and brought it to us, all without us knowing about it. He made a great Margarita to boot.] We are getting good at looking things up “just in time” when we need them. People are learning how to learn differently as part of the digital world most of us live in.

Now think about all of the incredible resources that are becoming available online. For younger folks there is Khan Academy of course. But college classes from some of the best instructors in the best Universities in the world are available through services such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They are available to the whole world, not just their “home” Universities.

I heard an amazing story at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference last year (thanks to Carl Bass). A few years ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford put their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for anyone to take for free. More than 160,000 students from around the world enrolled. Evidently, the top ranking Stanford student in that class of 160,000 was somewhere in the 300’s. The company Udacity was created out of this experience. Talk about levelling a playing field.

What happens when instead of paying a large sum of money to one University (even a top one), you can pick and choose the best of the best University classes from all of the top Universities for a fraction of the cost? This is reality today.

On top of this, we have a worldwide job market that is trending to care less about degrees and pedigrees and more about what you can do and what value you can bring. David Wong describes this well in his scathing Cracked post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Be sure to watch the video from Glengarry Glenn Ross (warning: it has NSFW (not safe for work) language).

Vie will be college age in perhaps 5 years and Aidan in 7 or maybe less. That’s a very long time in our digital world. Would they even want, or need, to go to a physical college? One thing is clear to me, however. Taking advantage of resources like this, creating your “own path” as a “major”, circumventing the institutional system entirely and yet learning what you want, will all take a honed ability to know how to learn as well as a curiosity and passion for learning itself.

On our unschooling road, we have really just started taking baby steps. We are working hard to create interest and passion. We can then can work toward confidence. There is still a lot of work to go on helping Aidan and Vie learn how to learn and at least for now it comes a little at the expense of learning some basic skills such as math and science. We’ll get there. That’s part of this journey we are on – one that itself will hopefully be a model for how to learn new things.